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What American Liberals Can Learn From Israel’s Protests



Every visit I’ve ever made to Israel has included a screaming match with my relatives there. I know: They’re Israelis. It’s to be expected. It’s how they show love. But the fights always resulted from the gentlest of prodding on my part—about the occupation, about the expanding role of religious authorities, about why Israeli taxi drivers can seem so obnoxious. They would respond with disproportionate defensiveness, even when I knew that my family of Tel Aviv centrists basically agreed with me. The questioning itself, especially from someone who didn’t live there, was the problem. I would be reminded that only two paths were open to me—pro-Israel or anti-Israel—and that simply by opening my mouth I had made a choice, the wrong one. There are a hundred reasons not to criticize the embattled Jewish state, I was told, and that was doubly true for me, an outsider, an American.

This has made my extended family’s WhatsApp group a confusing place for me recently. Until a couple of weeks ago, I had never seen my relatives at any protest (except maybe that one about the high price of cottage cheese). But every day, for weeks now, one of my uncles, Zvika or Doron, and my many young cousins have been posting photos and videos from the swelling demonstrations against the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over a bill that, if passed, would drastically curtail the power of the country’s Supreme Court—calling into question, critics say, whether Israel could even be called a democracy anymore.

After Netanyahu fired on Sunday the one minister in his government who dared to question the speed with which the bill was proceeding through Israel’s Parliament, those protests turned into a full-blown domestic crisis. By Monday, a huge bonfire could be seen burning wildly in the middle of Tel Aviv; strikes had shut down the airports, schools, and garbage collection. And there were my relatives, in the streets in the middle of the night, fire blazing behind them, chants filling the air, at the center of it all.

The success of this protest movement, which yesterday finally forced Netanyahu to postpone a vote on the bill, has to do, it seems to me, with the flags. They were everywhere, flung around shoulders, fluttering on long sticks, painted on young cheeks, stretched over the heads of crowds. There seemed to be no square foot without the blue Star of David. The protesters wrapped themselves in the flags: If there were indeed only two possible choices, this demonstration was unabashedly pro-Israel.

Those who came to resist Netanyahu and the moves of his extreme-right coalition partners avoided the framing of their actions as the expected leftist response—as a form of reaction, that is. They were the ones, they said, who were being true to the values of Israel. They were the ones who represented the Jewish and democratic state that Israel was founded to be. They were the authentic Israelis—even, one might say, conservative in the truest sense of hewing to tradition—while those looking to enact what they called “judicial reforms” were the dangerous radicals, the ones trying to bypass the rule of law and impose an alien authoritarianism akin to Hungary’s.


This was a dramatic reversal of roles for a liberal sector of Israel society that has often been derided over the years as “elite” and out of touch, dismissed as caring more for the Palestinians than they do for their fellow Jews. The blatant, overwhelming patriotism on display at these protests made that characterization moot. If any opponents tried those insults, they were drowned out by boisterous, emotional singing of the Hatikvah, Israel’s national anthem.

The patriotism allowed my relatives to take part. It helped release the cascade of support that the protesters have enjoyed in the past few days. “There comes a time in the history of a people or a person or an organization when you have to stand up and be counted,” Daniel Chamovitz​​, the president of Ben-Gurion University, told The New York Times, explaining his decision to shut down the university in protest. Labor unions throughout the country followed suit. And, most crucially, large numbers of reservists in the Israeli army declared their refusal to serve when called up. To the attempt by right-wing government ministers such as Itamar Ben-Gvir to depict the protesters as “anarchists,” the movement responded: We are just Israelis.

The bill has not gone away, and Netanyahu and his allies are determined to see it passed without compromise. But for a cohort of politicians loath to show weakness, the decision to delay was a sign that the protests are effective.

The American left has not turned to Israel as a role model for anything for a long time. And normally, wrapping oneself in the national flag would be about the last thing any self-respecting U.S. liberal would be inspired to do—least of all by Israeli example. But nothing lately feels normal, and liberal values and democratic standards are in no great shape here, either. It might be time for American defenders of liberal democracy to consider waving our own flag with the same abandon as my Israeli relatives.

The left’s allergy to exhibitions of patriotism has always granted the right an extraordinary rhetorical weapon: the chance to claim that the other side is not really American, does not really care about our country. It would be foolish to suggest that waving more flags would deny the right that weapon, but what’s happened in Israel shows the tactical benefits of flipping this script, of loudly claiming authenticity and all that’s positive about belonging to a nation.


What if the left made its fights, whether over reproductive rights or gun control or any number of issues, in a more full-throated patriotic tone, as an expression of the country’s deepest commitments to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? Speaking in this register might be uncomfortable at first—less comfortable, certainly, than the vocabulary of progress, of a flawed society evolving to become better. But it would establish the left’s causes as affirmations of a national identity, as true to tradition, making them much harder to brush away as un-American. If this came along with the outward symbols—the chants of “U.S.A.,” the flags around shoulders—the right would find it harder to resort to its usual reflexes. You can’t be called an out-of-touch elitist when you’re loudly singing the national anthem.

Israel and the U.S. are two different societies, with two very different histories. But their politics have each become entangled in almost matching culture wars that are, essentially, about questions of authenticity and belonging. If Israel’s streets today are any indication, the people usually on the defensive in these arguments have a lot to gain by simply exclaiming that they have as great a stake in the nation, that they are just as much the nation.

Source: The Atlantic

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